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Gretchen Cook-Anderson

IES Abroad Program: Nagoya, 1988-89 Academic Year
U.S. College / University: Spelman College
Major: Political Science
Current Profession: Director of Diversity Recruiting & Advising at IES Abroad


What words would you use to describe your identity(ies)? 
I am a Japanese-speaking, black American woman with Southern roots who is a married mother of three children.

What motivated you to choose to study or intern abroad?
During my childhood, I never quite felt I belonged anywhere until the world embraced me. I’d lived a relatively nomadic life as a kid, due to my dad’s job relocations as a salesman. I’d been forced to uproot, resettle and try to fit in more than 8 times in new communities across three states. I had a vision disability that limited my ability to see the details of life with the clarity most enjoy. And, I was a Southern black girl thrust into all-white Northern and Midwest environments where I felt like a foreigner in my own country.

Books about other places were my salvation during those unsure years. I read voraciously about other countries and their people, a pastime that cultivated my love and wanderlust for other places, in part, because I somehow felt that there was a place for me somewhere, someplace out there in the bigger world.

After a family excursion to a Japanese restaurant sparked a fascination with Japanese culture and language, I eventually decided that only by studying in Japan would I learn the language I’d fallen in love with. 

During my student days at Spelman College, Japanese wasn’t yet offered. The few programs abroad that would enable my dream of studying abroad in Japan required a minimum of completed college level Japanese courses. IES Abroad was the premier opportunity, which Spelman’s longtime study abroad director, Margie Ganz steered me. I didn’t meet the Japanese proficiency qualification despite otherwise being an Honors scholar with a high GPA. Margie Ganz spoke to Michael Steinberg, IES Abroad Vice President, on my behalf. And, in my desperation, I also called to him make my case, and to promise to excel despite the disadvantage of having no formal Japanese language training.

He said 'yes'. What for him may have been a simple decision changed the trajectory of my life. That decision was my passport to 30 years of traveling the world that has taken me to more than 25 countries, and the honor of an opportunity to spearhead efforts that have led to more than 10,000 students of color and thousands more first-gen and financially-challenged students, students of diverse faiths and LGBTQ+ students enrolling in our IES Abroad programs. All of this from a simple 'yes'.

When you studied or interned abroad, did your identity(ies) influence your experience in significant and/or surprising ways? If so, how?
My identity as a black American woman did influence my experience when I studied in Japan and during our spring break excursion - in surprising and not so surprising ways. Since the Olympics took place in Seoul, Korea that year, many assumed I was an American athlete making a pit stop in Japan on my way to Seoul. There were others who assumed I was related somehow to singer Janet Jackson, who was on a world tour then and was the closest young black woman in pop culture at the time people could align me with in their limited awareness of black women. Though neighbors, Nanzan University students and others were friendly and curious, rarely was it initially assumed I was a typical American college student there to study Japanese culture and language. I stood out, physically, everywhere I went – a phenomenon I had to adjust to. What's interesting is that I experienced a glimpse of what life must be like for famous people who attract stares and picture-taking like they are objects of curiosity and fascination.

I became increasingly aware of the lack of awareness, on a global scale, of black Americans or others of African descent beyond pop culture stereotypes. I took greater pride in my heritage and my desire to expand others' perceptions. My sense of American-ness also grew during that period.

Has studying abroad impacted your educational and/or professional aspirations or path? If so, how?
Yes, following my study abroad experience in Japan, I became even more determined to shape a career that would enable me to work that has an impact on a global scale.

What experiences or skills gained from studying abroad continue to influence your life now?
I continue to be relatively fearless when it comes to change. I embrace change. I also gained heightened independence, resourcefulness, and self-reliance skills that still factor into my life tremendously. While exploring Japan and China, I opened my mind more to cultural differences - tried new foods, traditions, language and ways of doing things - and have remained open in the same way since. Japanese Yaki soba, rice grown in Hokkaido and Yamagata, miso soup and ebi tempura are still some of my all-time favorite foods. I have a genuine love and appreciation for humanity across superficial differences; these feelings truly matured during study abroad.

In one sentence, tell students who identify similarly why studying/interning abroad is a good idea, particularly for them.
When you go abroad, you open yourself to the breathtaking achievements and expanse of the African diaspora across this world, and, in doing so, you'll empower yourself in amazing ways and transform how you view yourself and your place in the world.

Is there anything else you'd like to share?
Go. See. Do. Learn. Then, inspire others to do so as well.

When you go abroad, you open yourself to the breathtaking achievements and expanse of the African diaspora across this world, and, in doing so, you'll empower yourself in amazing ways and transform how you view yourself and your place in the world.

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When students see themselves reflected in others who have already traveled places they’ve only dreamed about, they’re more likely to realize what’s possible no matter their identity or circumstances. Your story could make a world of difference for them.